“You look quite happy,” Jonas teased. He casually seated himself in the armchair nearest to Armando’s desk.
“Oh, please get comfortable in my office, why don’t you?” Armando joked. “And yes, I feel great. I needed that vacation badly.”
“Maybe Felicia and I will also get a chance to go to Naktun Island, now that you and Izdahl have all the connections.”
“I’ll mention the idea to Izdahl.” Armando laughed softly at his friend’s tactics. “Vadem’s very mellow; so I doubt it will be an issue.”
“Regardless of where we go, Fel and I have to take a vacation after this competition. She’s been patient with postponing some time off.”
“I’m surprised she hasn’t threatened me for how much time we’ve had to spend on this.”
“Well, this morning, she did say something about hurting you. She hadn’t even given me my first kiss of the day yet.”
“And I was already on her mind huh? You might need to work on your technique, before she starts thinking of me even more.”
“Ohhh.” Jonas laughed brokenly. “That one hit the bone.”
Armando grinned at him, knowing that the verbal jab had been one of his better ones.
“Anyway, let’s get down to business,” Jonas said.
Armando left his desk and the two went to sit at the circular meeting table in his office, prepared to discuss their next steps. There had been an update about the Inter-territory Architectural Design Contest. On the previous, day the results had been announced on television. The firm had submitted its design and its work had passed the first round. Armando and Jonas were now invited to make a model of their design, which would then be judged in the next round of the contest.
“This could mean a great deal to our company,” Armando said.
“Definitely. We should hire one or two more staff members. The others can focus on the day-to-day operations and the smaller projects, while we—”
There was a knock on Armando’s door. One of the assistants, Eric, had a message for him.
“Armando, there was one last thing while you on vacation.” Eric flushed, embarrassed that he had forgotten to deliver all of the information to his boss. “Dominic Byrne called for you. He said he’d be back in the area later this month. He wondered if you’d have time to meet with him.”
Armando was silent and Eric became nervous. Having started at the company only three months ago, Eric was still adjusting to the expectations of the firm. He was now wondering if he’d be reprimanded for not relaying the message earlier. However, he had misconstrued Armando’s austere expression. Instead of preparing to berate Eric, Armando was busy calculating what Dominic could possibly want. He and Dominic hadn’t seen each other since the end of graduate school, almost ten years ago. The two had been lovers.
“Is that all he said?” Armando asked.
“Yes,” Eric assured him.
“Alright, thank you,” Armando told him.
“Armando, what do you think this could mean?” Jonas asked, after Eric had left.
“I don’t know.”
“You and Dominic, you two…” Jonas looked slightly uncomfortable. Previous conversations about Armando’s ex-lover had sometimes ended in an argument. Bringing up that part of Armando’s past was one of the few topics that he was reluctant to discuss.
“Let’s not talk about that now,” Armando said firmly.
“Are you at least going to let Izdahl know about him?”
“There’s nothing to tell.”
“If you say so…”
Armando could feel the tension in Izdahl as they lay in bed. There was a commercial about The Gathering, which focused on the Tournament. Armando had seen it numerous times this week alone.
Nitelge and humans had discussed opening The Gathering to humans, even inviting humans to view the Tournament. This year would be especially interesting as the Elite Fire Sparring would take place. The commercials were one of the ways to provide more information to humans, intending to ease the most apprehensive ones into the usually private world of the Nitelge.
Under Xerxes’ directions, a campaign had been established to encourage stronger Nitelge/human relations. She saw that The Gathering was an optimal chance to do so. It already served the purpose of fostering goodwill among the Nitelge families. Adding humans to the events would, hopefully, extend the same level of benevolence to the rest of the planet’s inhabitants. While not all of the Kelchos had initially agreed with her idea, she had eventually been able to have them support her undertaking.
Armando agreed with Xersa’s views. This was why he now felt at odds with his request to not have Izdahl participate. It would be awkward for Izdahl not to have as much of a presence as many likely expected him to have. It would be particularly cumbersome for him to be absent, given the fact that it was his great-grandmother who had made opening The Gathering a priority. Armando’s concerns fought with his understanding of the likely negative speculation that would take place if Izdahl didn’t participate.
“We need to talk about this,” Izdahl stated, turning off the TV.
Armando had known the subject wasn’t truly closed, even as Izdahl had agreed not to be in the Elite Fire Sparring.
“I’m surprised you held back this long,” Armando said, putting aside his reading tablet.
Izdahl got out of bed and began pacing, ready to have an intense discussion with his lover.
“I’ve had more time to think about your request and I don’t like it. It’s too much to ask based on little to no information.”
“It’s based on my dreams. Weren’t you the one who told me Nitelge take dreams seriously? Now because it doesn’t suit your needs, you want to minimize its importance.”
“It’s not how you’re making it sound.”
“You’re trying to out-maneuver me, even after you agreed not to participate.”
Izdahl was momentarily at a loss. Then he regained his footing.
“Sunja isn’t clear what your dream means. It’s likely not about what you think it is.”
Armando had done as Izdahl as asked, making an appointment to see her right after their vacation. Sunja had been unable to explain the significance of the dream. For the time being, she was reluctant to take it strictly for what the images revealed could happen. When Armando had explained his request of Izdahl, Sunja had not wanted to give him advice on how to handle the situation. She’d laughed at his predicament, wishing him the best of luck with dealing with his lover. Now, he wished she’d been able to give him some kind of help, as it was unlikely Izdahl would leave the subject alone anytime soon.
“I talked with Sunja, as I promised,” Armando pointed out. “I kept my word.”
“I don’t like what you’re insinuating.” Izdahl had flinched, the architect’s comment having stung him. “I’m very good about keeping my word. I’m bothered by how you’re acting. I don’t think you fully understand what the Tournament means to me.”
Armando pinched the bridge of his nose, his frustration growing.
“Do what you think is best. I’m tired and need to get up early. I have a meeting with a potential client tomorrow and I want to be focused.”
Armando slid down under the covers and closed his eyes. Sighing, Izdahl returned to bed. He turned out the lights. He lay awake, unable to get the topic off him mind.
“You’re not even making a serious attempt to understand,” Izdahl said, after a few minutes.
“In my dream, your life is at risk,” Armando stated again. “If that’s not enough for you to listen to me, there’s nothing else I can say about it. Goodnight, Izdahl.”
His lover’s only response was to curse.
The next morning, before he left for work, Armando pulled Izdahl to him, surprising him.
“Maybe I was a little closed-minded last night,” the architect admitted. “I don’t want to be controlling. If you enter, just swear to me that you’ll be careful. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
“The biggest challenge I’ve taken on is being with you.” Izdahl teased. “I think I’ll survive the fire sparring.”
“I was being serious!” Armando told him, lightly cuffing him on his head.
“Ow! I know. You’re such a worrier.”
“So, I guess you’ll register for the Tournament today.”
“Yes, it’s the final day for me to do that.”
“That’s why you pressed the subject last night. You must have held back as long as you could.”
“Yes…Thank you for changing your mind, ‘Mando. I know this wasn’t easy for you.”
“Would you have signed up anyway?”
“Probably,” Izdahl disclosed, rubbing the back of his neck as guilt rushed through him. “But I’d much rather have your support.”
“I would have been furious with you,” Armando assured him. Then, he added drily, “The sad thing is I’d have probably found out from the news before you even had a chance to tell me what you did.”
Between the interest in the Core Guardians and humans being invited to The Gathering, numerous forms of the media were eager to report the latest news. It was unlikely Izdahl could have registered without information going out about it soon after he’d declared his intent to be a challenger.
“What will this mean for our family?” Khalaf asked.
The alarm he was feeling was at odds with the pleasant spring climate. The two brothers had been walking around the grounds of their family home, as Rasmus had told Khalaf of the latest developments. Khalaf had listened in stunned silence as Rasmus given an account of Dagmar’s visit with their parents.
“Khal, I’m not sure. I just know that Dagmar is unpredictable. He appears to want an equal partnership but I doubt he’s being honest.”
“Is the rest of our clan aware of this?”
“Father told me that only our immediate family, Dagmar and his most trusted associates know. I’ll have to believe that for the time being. Father and Dagmar are strategizing about how to reveal their alliance. I’ve been at some of the meetings and I don’t think we’re heading in the right direction.”
“What does Mother have to say about all of this?”
Rasmus thought of the panicked expression on his mother’s face. He sat down on a nearby bench, sighing, his concern about his mother growing. She’d always been quite frail and this current maneuver by his father was not helping her health. Rasmus was surprised that Balvan, who had usually been a loving husband, was blinded by the effect his decision was having on his wife.
“She’s naturally against it but Father doesn’t care.”
“None of this makes sense!” Khalaf exclaimed. “We were supposed to be distancing ourselves from Dagmar.”
“I’ll monitor how things go in the next few months. Dagmar is slow and methodical. I doubt he has put all of his plans into place.”
“Tell me what I need to do to help.”
“We have to come up with our own strategy, separate from what Father is thinking. We have to be prepared to do damage control.”
The two brothers discussed what they knew about how Dagmar operated. They thought that the years spent working for him would prove to be useful.
Shortly after he’d returned home from work, Izdahl received a phone call from the Resonance Center. He’d been expecting the outcome of his interactions with Avila.
“What do the results show?” Izdahl asked.
“You two are not compatible enough,” the researcher explained. “While there is some affinity, it is not dependable for our purposes.”
“Thank the gods,” Izdahl answered, laughing.
He was truly happy that being closer to Avila, spending time with her had helped to reveal that they were not suitable Shield partners. Armando would be pleased that he had not needed to sleep with Avila. However, Izdahl still had to meet with his second potential partner, Matero Nolasca.
Having remembered this, he realized that his concerns were only partially removed.
“Have you become too famous to even see me?”
“Hi Dominic,” Armando said, quietly.
“That’s it?” Dominic Byrne asked, laughing. The slightly chilly wind whipped at his dark hair. It blew across his face, one that almost anyone would have found attractive. “That’s your only reaction? It’s me.”
“How are you? I haven’t seen you since—”
“Since the day we finished grad school.”
“And you’ve done quite well for yourself,” Dominic noted.
“Thank you…So much has happened…”
“I see…Well, is everything alright? I called out your name three times and you didn’t hear me.”
“I’ve had a lot on my mind.”
Armando had been hurrying up the stairs from the train station closest to his office. He’d been returning from an appointment with a potential client. He was pleased with the results of the meeting and it was likely the company had gained more business. Quite fixated on what projects could be added to the firm’s workload, he hadn’t noticed that someone had wanted his attention. Dominic had needed to repeatedly call his name and then finally run after him, clasping him on the shoulder. Armando had attempted to restrain a series of emotions from crossing his face, once he realized who was standing in front of him on the crowded street.
“I suppose that’s why two weeks passed and you never returned my phone call,” Dominic replied. “Well, perhaps we can still get together some other time.”
“No,” Armando told him. He wanted to get what he saw as unpleasant business out of the way. “Why don’t we go sit down and have a chat?”
The two walked to a nearby café. Armando found himself repeatedly looking around to see who was near them.
“You don’t appear to be too comfortable about this,” Dominic said. His green eyes bore into Armando. “Can’t we go somewhere more private? There’s so much I want to say. Speaking to you like this in a café is impersonal.”
“I don’t have any intentions of speaking often with you. Either we talk here or no conversation happens.”
The quiet confidence in Armando’s words surprise Dominic. While the architect wasn’t completely at ease, he was self-assured enough to try to have Dominic meet his terms.
“Armando, there’s no need to be this way.”
“You should be glad I’m sitting here with you at all. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to see you again.”
“Why is that?”
Armando waited until after a waiter had taken their orders, before answering the question.
“We didn’t end on good terms,” Armando reminded him.
It was an understatement. In their last interaction, Dominic had broken Armando’s left arm.
“Perhaps I’m a different person now.”
“That doesn’t mean I have to respect that.”
In the basement of his home, Dagmar had recently revealed what he considered to be one of his greatest achievements. Years of planning, research and patience had led to what he was now showing Rasmus.
Rasmus wasn’t sure whether to be fascinated or repulsed. He went back and forth between the two reactions. In front of him was the product of Dagmar’s Blood Replica spell. Standing on a pedestal and staring back at him was the 15-inch tall sentient being, which was a smaller version of Armando.
“Aren’t there ethical issues for doing something like this?” Rasmus asked.
“Of course. That’s why the replica spell is forbidden,” Dagmar said, casually laughing.
“I’m glad you can take this lightly.”
“Now, now, don’t pretend you weren’t eager to do my bidding for several years.” Dagmar went to stand behind Rasmus and placed a hand on each of his shoulders. “I have so many reasons to thank you.”
Rasmus moved away Dagmar. The Kelcho’s touch had made his skin grow cold.
“What exactly are you planning?” Rasmus demanded.
“I’m going to gain leverage. Armando is very important to Xersa. He’ll become my most valuable puppet.”
The spell version of Armando moved closer to the edge of the pedestal. It appeared to be studying Rasmus; reading his expressions. The perfect likeness to Armando was disturbing, right down to the compelling nature in the replica’s eyes. Rasmus looked down at the floor, feeling that he needed to protect himself in ways he’d never thought would be necessary. His mind raced, already trying to think of methods to thwart Dagmar.
“You’ll be fine,” Xersa assured Armando, squeezing his hand.
“I shouldn’t be so nervous. You told me this day would come.”
Xersa entered the code to the inner most restricted chamber of the Hall of Records. The door slid aside. Armando followed Xersa. She motioned for him to be seated at a large wooden table. Armando looked around the room, noting that eight packed bookshelves were against one wall. One of the walls contained photos of the previous and current Kelchos, categorized by their clans. Another wall had a recessed area in the middle of it, where a tome rested on a pedestal. Xersa picked up the massive book and brought it over to the table.
“Starting today, you will be reading this. Each day you will come here with me or someone else I designate to bring you here. You will begin reading at exactly the same time and end at the same time. Do not be late and do not expect to leave early.”
“You’re being quite strict.”
“We don’t have as long as we think, Armando. You must fully understand what is expected of you. I need you to be strong. The Basheil might be attacking us—though I can’t say how soon. We’ve been safe from them for centuries. However, we’ve been receiving reports that they’re attacking the weaker planets that surround us. They will leave us for last because we are their most formidable enemy. Our greatest hope is Zaitis and you must act as his protector. To do so, you need to gain an understanding of what is written in this book.”
Xersa placed one hand on the tome and continued her explanation.
“Kelcho Zaitis had believed that the focus should be on protecting the planet and recovering from the war. He’d requested that the Kelchos of that time put him in stasis. He’d wanted to use his incredible energy as the linchpin that powered the Shield. All the reports I’ve been getting point to the awakening of Zaitis. When that happens, his wife Sabira will come out of stasis too, as they are quite connected. My greatest concern is that the Basheil will discover she is on our planet and they will hurry and risk everything to attack us. The Kelcho Council has been worried about that for centuries.”
“And what role am I to play in this?”
“You will be a shield for Zaitis and Sabira until they are at their full capacity. I have told you what we placed inside you as a child. It is time for you to tap into that energy.”